“All I ask is that Schmeling stand up and fight without quitting… people think that I am going into the ring gunshy… why should I go into the ring gunshy when Schmeling is two years older, and I’m two years smarter in boxing?”
This was the sentiment expressed by Joe “the Brown Bomber” Louis going into his Heavyweight Title Bout with Max Schmeling of Germany which took place on this date, June 22 in 1938 in New York City. Louis had good reason to want to beat Schmeling, who was the only fighter who had ever knocked him out before. But both men found themselves representing more in the ring than just themselves, and neither man was particularly comfortable with their position. Schmeling found himself representing a Nazi regime with which he had flirted, and Louis represented freedom and democracy in a country which frequently denied those things to African-Americans such as himself. But the two men are inextricably linked by their historic fights, especially the one of this date which was over in little more than two minutes.
Joe Louis – “the Brown Bomber” from Detroit
Joe Louis was born as Joseph Louis Barrow in Alabama on May 13, 1914, the seventh of eight children to Munroe Barrow and Lillie (Reese) Barrow. Munroe was early in Joe’s life committed to a mental institution and in 1920, Lillie married Pat Brooks. In 1926, the family moved to Detroit, Michigan where the men went to work at the Ford Motor Company. Joe took an interest in boxing which was an easy way to earn money in Depression Era America. –>Joe made his first mark in the 1934 Golden Gloves Tournament, in which he got to the finals. Boxing Historian Herb Goldman has said that Louis had the power of a natural puncher: “…It’s the right coordination and the right build all coming together in a number of ways.” Jack Blackburn, Joe’s trainer saw something special in Joe, but taught him what to expect from being a black fighter. Let his left do the talking. John Roxburough & Julian Black, Joe’s managers set down a set of rules for Joe to follow: he could not gloat, could not be seen in public with white women. He had to be seen as a mother-loving bible-reading man and not TOO black. The shadow of the flamboyant one-time black champion Jack Johnson hung over Joe Louis, and he set out to be “the good negro”; a mask he willingly donned. Having to overcome a childhood problem with stammering, he kept fairly quiet. It was only in the ring that he could really let go. By 1935 Joe had won his first 23 pro bouts. New York beckoned.
Max Schmeling from Pomerania
Maximillian Adolph Otto Siegfried Schmeling was born in the town of Klein Luckow in Pomerania (on the Baltic Sea) on September 28, 1905 which made him about a decade older than Joe Louis. He had come up as a fighter during the 1920’s in Weimar Republic Germany, when the intellectual Jewish society in Berlin’s Cabarets took quite an interest in him.Max came to America in 1928, wanting to conquer America – the boxing capital of the world. With his wiley, wise-cracking Jewish manager, Joe Jacobs he was able to arrange a title bout with Jack Sharkey. Schmeling won this bout but only when Sharkey punched him below the belt. This put a taint on Schmeling’s Championship title, and he became known as “the Low Blow Champion”. On June 21, 1932, he fought Sharkey once again and lost in a very controversial split decision. This reverse made him a celebrity in Germany which was then falling into the sway of the Nazi government of Adolf Hitler. Schmeling didn’t especially like the Nazis, or Hitler, but he did like being close to those who were in power. So he got close in with the Nazi leadership in spite of it’s persecution of his erstwhile Jewish friends. Hoping to regain the Heavyweight title, he arranged to fight the previously undefeated Joe Louis. Schmeling was looked upon in as an old fading fighter when he met Louis for their first fight on June 19, 1936. In what was a huge surprise for everyone including Louis who had become complacent Schmeling won this first encounter after 12 punishing rounds.
The Re-Match Between Democracy and Fascism….
The Nazi government which had been expecting Schmeling to lose to Louis big-time, suddenly lionized him as proof of Aryan superiority over the inferior black man. Schmeling himself didn’t really see it that way, but he enjoyed all of the hoopla that the Nazis went to on his behalf, and even went to the American Olympic Committee to reassure them that all would be well for Black and Jewish athletes to compete in the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin. This was a major public relations coup for the Nazi regime. But Louis’s managers went to bat for him and saw to it that he got the first crack at the then heavyweight champion Louis Braddock. Louis fought Braddock and knocked him out in eight rounds in Chicago on June 22, 1937. This made Louis the Heavyweight Champion, but he refused to fully accept the title until he had his rematch with Schmeling. By the time of that rematch Germany had annexed Austria and was seen on the world stage as an aggressor and likely enemy to the U.S. in war. So Schmeling was viewed by many Americans as being a full-fledged Nazi. Louis, on the other hand was being put forward as a champion of democracy and freedom both of which he knew very well were denied to most of his own people as basic civil rights because of the color of their skin. Nevertheless the two titans longed to knock each other off, and set about doing just that on June 22, 1938.
“Max Schmeling is Beaten in One Round!!!”
NBC radio announcer Clem McCarthy delivered the blow-by- blow account of the fight, which lasted just two minutes and four seconds. But it was a historic milestone — one that an estimated 70 million people in a nation of 130 million listened to on their radios:
“And there we are… and Louis is in the center of the ring Louis lets hit with two straight lefts to the chin, both of them light… on the far side of the ring now Max with his back to the rope and Louis hooks a left to Maxes head quickly and shoots over a hard right to Maxes head.. Louis a left to Maxes jaw!! A right to his head!! Max shoots a hard right to Louis.. Louis with the old one-two!!”
—Herb Goldman describes what happened next:
Louis drove Schmeling back, he reigned punches. Max tried to defend he tried to counter, he tried to get out of the way“. At just over a minute into the first round Louis struck Schmeling with a ferocious blow to his side. Sports Writer Lester Rodney described an almost animal sound that Schmeling let out at that moment: “And Schmeling emitted a “scream” …we had never heard a fighter scream in a high-pitched voice in agony…” Louis continued to reign down punches on Schmeling. from every angle.. The referee, Arthuur Donovan got in and made Joe step back for a moment.. But then he came in again and knocked Max down with one punch. Schmeling got up, and Joe knocked him wobbly with another series of punches. In a futile gesture, Schmeling’s corner through in the towel, but Donovan threw it back “where it hung on the ropes as limp as the German himself “ as one writer put it.Clem McCarthy again: “The count is five, five, six, seven, eight… the men are in the ring! The fight is over on a technical knock-out, Max Schmeling is beaten in one round!!”
Epilogue – Max and Joe Bury the Hatchet
The streets of Harlem went wild in celebration. 100,000 people flowed out into the streets wherein the Police Commissioner blocked off a section of thirty city blocks, and let them celebrate. “There never was a Harlem like the Harlem of last night. Take a dozen Christmases, a score of New Years Eves, a bushel of July Fourths, and maybe, yes maybe you get a faint glimpse of the idea!” – the New York Daily News. Joe Louis went on to successfully defend his title more than any other Heavyweight has managed since, over twenty times. He served honorably in World War II. although he was in a segregated unit that was not allowed into combat. Max Schmeling was given the bum’s rush when he returned to Germany following the fight. He was totally ignored by the Nazi government. During the vicious nationwide anti-Jewish pogrom known as “Kristallnacht” on Nov. 8-9, 1938 he allowed two Jewish boys who were friends of his family hide out in his hotel room, saving them from violence and possibly death. He served in the paratroops during the war, and afterward made a large amount of money as the first German bottler for “Coca-Cola”!! In 1961, he appeared on Ralph Edwards TV program “This Is Your Life – Joe Louis” and he and Louis greeted each other warmly, clearly burying their old hatchet. They remained in touch with each other after that, meeting about a dozen more times. Schmeling gave Louis money when his cash situation dried up on him, and when Louis died in 1981, Schmeling sent money to cover the funereal costs. Schmeling died in 2005.
Directed by Barak Goodman, PBS, 2005.